________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 21. . . .February 3, 2012


John A.: Birth of a Country.

Toronto, ON: CBC Learning (www.cbclearning.ca), 2010.
90 min., DVD, $240.00 (Single site license price).
Product ID ZZY-11-06.

Grades 7-12 / Ages 12-17.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4



Based upon Richard Gwyn's biography John A.: The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, 1815-1867, this made-for-television drama focuses upon the political turmoil in the Province of Canada between 1856 and 1864 that culminated in a united government with Macdonald as premier of a colony that would seek confederation with other British colonies in North America. The period is characterized by dysfunction as government after government falls when it is unable to sustain a majority. Dissatisfaction with the province's constitution that guaranteed Lower Canada an equal number of seats in the assembly, despite growing population in Upper Canada, flames the cry for "Representation by Population" espoused by George Brown and his fellow liberals. The power struggle between the primarily Francophone members from Lower Canada and the primarily Anglophone members from Upper Canada is also illustrated by the failure of the members to decide upon the location of a permanent home for the seat of government. The assembly would relocate every three years, at no small expense, between temporary headquarters in Toronto and Quebec City. Shrewd political statesmanship resolves the issue when the governor general advises Queen Victoria to name Ottawa, the former lumber town Bytown on the Ottawa River, the new capital of the province.

      The blurb on the dvd cover aptly describes the film as a political thriller. John A. Macdonald is portrayed locked in a mutual hatred with George Brown. With support from his Lower-Canadian conservative colleague George-Etienne Cartier, Macdonald demonstrated skill in political brinkmanship. The constitutional power of the governor general is demonstrated at one point when Brown is defeated, and, rather than allow another election so quickly after the last one, the governor general lets Macdonald form a government.

      The private lives of both Macdonald and Brown are captured mainly in their relations with their respective spouses. It is implied that the prolonged illness and death of Macdonald's first wife contributed to his abuse of alcohol. Brown found that his Scottish soon-to-be wife Anne opened his mind to the importance of the rights of minorities. Scenes of domestic life are among the most effective in capturing a sense of everyday life in the period. Particularly engaging is one scene showing Anne baking scones on an open hearth. The magic of film brings colour to the era in a way that historic black-and- white or sepia-toned photographs cannot. It is unclear whether the colourful outfits that Macdonald sports are factual or the director's effort to make him stand out from his peers.

      Brown emerges as a stellar statesman when he sets aside his personal ambitions and animosity toward Macdonald to support the creation of a united government in 1864 that will seek to resolve its constitutional problems and address the threat of annexation from the Union forces of the United States, who are angered by Britain's support of the Confederates in the American Civil War, by seeking confederation with other British colonies.

      One special feature worth noting is director Ciccoritti's behind-the-scenes video diary that includes conversations with several actors and film crew members and insight into actual filming on sets in real properties, including Casa Loma.


Val Ken Lem is the liaison librarian for History, English and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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